Stanley Steelhead

24 April 2006 By Dan Bachman • Day-Spent-Fishing • Comments (5)

I have never hired a guide while fishing for trout. Part of the experience and fun for me is to learn the water I am fishing by trial and error. Resident trout hold in similar water on the majority of rivers that I have fished. But when I decided to go after steelhead for the first time I knew that all bets were off. Hiring a guide would be money well spent.

My friends over at The Riverkeeper Fly Shop gave me just one name when I told them I was looking to fish the Salmon near Stanley, Julie Meissner with Sawtooth Fishing Guides

The Salmon south of Stanley Julie Meisner deciding on a fly pattern

My brother-in-law and I met up with Julie at a Stanley fly shop and 15 minutes later we were on the water. Julie has been a backcountry and fishing guide in the Stanley area since the early ‘80s and has a quiet and reserved personality that we took to immediately. She has a conservation spirit and reverence for the sport not to mention I think she knows where every single steelhead is in the 30 miles of river below Stanley.

Our first stop found us looking at a pair of steelies a couple of feet from the bank holding in a foot and a half of water. I crossed well upstream staying near the opposite bank until I could come in behind the fish. Julie stood on the bank and gave instructions while I moved closer. “Don’t move!” came the order, just as I was getting ready to cast. The buck had slid downstream to just 2-3 feet above where I was standing. The buck eventually spooked and we were off to the next spot.

Near a girder bridge we found another pair holding. Only a downstream presentation would work here and this is where my inexperience with steelhead fishing showed. I cast down and across with the swing crossing where the pair were at. Julie showed me the correct rod position with the rod inline with the fly line. After a couple casts I knew I had it down when I could feel the fly and split shot bouncing along the bottom. It took another 20 minutes of adjustment to my position and the casting location before I felt a bump that was not as sharp as the rocks on previous casts. I set the hook and felt the incredible pull of the attached steelhead.

I was so suprised by the strength of the fish that I nearly lost the rod at first. Over 100 feet of line left the reel as the steelhead ran upstream. It is safe to say that this fish was 4 or 5 times stronger than any other fish I have caught on a fly rod. I had to exert an amazing amount of effort to even move the fish. After a couple runs up and down the hen went topside. As she erupted from the water, my heart sank. I could clearly see the fly between her jaw and pectoral fins. I had snagged her. After a quick landing and release we were off looking for more fish.

Typical steelhead holding water Author with the first steelhead Removing a snagged hook

My brother-in-law then spent his turn trying to entice a pair of steelhead into snapping his fly near the convergenence with the East Fork. After 2 hours and a half dozen different fly patterns we were convinced that these fish had lock jaw.

Considering that we were steelhead newbies, I think we had a successful day. Our guide, Julie put us into a lot of fish (nearly 20) and taught us an amazing amount about steelhead fishing . The majority of anglers on the river that we ran into commented that they had trouble getting the fish to bite as well – so we can’t fault anybody on that.

I had heard that fishing for finicky steelhead can be maddening, but there is no question that I am already addicted after just my first outing. I just hope that feeling the run of a huge sea-run rainbow won’t ruin regular fly fishing for me.

As an aside, if you are looking for a great steelhead guide in the Stanley area, I would highly recommend Sawtooth Fishing Guides and Julie Meissner. You can reach her at the website link listed above or at (208) 774-8768.



  1. 24 April 2006 alan

    Neat write-up and photos, as always. Having never come close to fishing for steelhead, I’m curious: Is it common to snag them as you did? That’s never happened to me a dry fly—though it could be because I’m clumsy and slow to set the hook. Is it a function of the size of the steelhead hook and its bumping along on the bottom?

  2. 24 April 2006 Dan Bachman

    Yes and yes. I have spent 3 days steelheading and either myself or somebody I was fishing with has snagged at least one on each of the 3 days. In talking to our guide, she said that it is quite common. You are fishing so close to the fish and when you feel anything that feels like a bite you lift the pole. If the fish has spit the fly there is a good chance that you will hit something on the fish with the bigger hook.

  3. 26 April 2006 Craig

    Wow that looks like it would be lots of fun glad you finally got the opportunity.

  4. 27 April 2006 Clifford

    I have always been taught to not set the hook or raise the rod when swinging for steelhead. You allow the fish to come to the fly and return to its lie, essentially the fish hooks itself. That is why swinging for them is so rewarding and maddening. You allow the fish the opportunity to “play” on their own time and lessen the risk of harming them unnecessarily.

  5. 29 April 2006 Dan Bachman

    Clifford – Thanks for the comment. Being a steelhead newbie I was just following instructions from the guide. :) I understand that steelhead don’t really eat once in fresh water. Steelhead simply snap at flies as they irritate them and so they don’t have the fly in their mouth very long. I will be doing more research before my next steelhead trip and will try your technique as well.

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